Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy, the first play of his that he has returned to and directed a second time, begins and ends with a woman lying on a bed and a man sitting meekly beside her in a dingy Kilburn bedsit.
First, she’s naked, and so is he; they’ve just had sex. It obviously wasn’t much fun (we find out why, later). Secondly, she’s shaking and crying and drunk and curled up on the same, now badly broken, bed while another man sits in a chair by the one-bar electric fire.
These tableaux are like paintings by Lucian Freud. In between, the woman, Jean (Sian Brooke), a heavy-drinking garage attendant, deals with a second, unpleasant visit by the first man (Daniel Coonan), suffers a violent incursion by his wife (Claire-Louise Cordwell), and hosts the grimmest Friday night post-pub party you’ve ever seen.
Leigh is right to be proud of this play, which he first produced on the old Hampstead stage in 1979, with the same designer, Alison Chitty, and an incomparable cast including Julie Walters, Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent. In its quiet, absorbing way, it’s a masterpiece of small talk, misery and violence, and it has a most unusual structure.
In the long second act, Jean’s best Brummie friend Dawn (Sinead Matthews) clashes, dances and spars with her Irish husband, Mick (Allen Leech), while Mick’s taciturn Lincolnshire mate, Len (an improbably tall and awkward Craig Parkinson), whose wife has left him, tries to keep the peace, and the party, going.
Strikingly, Leigh and Chitty have used only one side of the wide Hampstead stage, and there’s an intense realism about the bedsit, and the quiet of the night, the silence between people, thanks to Paul Pyant’s superb lighting and John Leonard’s discreet sound (a radio plays incessantly in the tiny upstage kitchenette).
We have music hall, Elvis Presley and Irish rebel songs, reminiscences about the old place they lived in, a black out when the gas meter runs out, endless cigarette smoking, careless racism (“You never see a Paki in the pub”), a sense of helplessness as Jean’s garage moves from personal service to self-service at the pumps.
Above all, we have brilliant acting, of a density that is rare, with all the characters squashed together in a tiny space for warmth, yet finding room to fly in their own personal fashion, falling over drunk, ineffably sad, horribly real. This is a notable evening, and a notable work of art.